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HE: the equality challenges

The equality challenges facing the UK higher education sector.

What the data tells us

Our most recent Equality in HE: statistical report covers UK higher education staff and student equality data from the 2011/12 academic year.

Senior staff

There continue to be low proportions of women and black and minority ethnic staff in professorial or leadership roles. While there has been a decrease in the proportion of professors who are white men from the previous year, the disparity in numbers for other groups is pronounced. The opportunities for black and minority ethnic women seem to be most greatly reduced.

  • 68.8% of senior academic managers are white men
  • 15.9% of white male academics are employed at professor level
  • 2.8% of black and minority ethnic female academics are employed at professor level

The low numbers of senior women in academia and research is a challenged across Europe. To help address this, ECU is using its knowledge and experience in a multi-country European project.

Student attainment gaps

  • 17.7% The difference between the proportion of white qualifiers receiving a first or 2:1 and the proportion of Black and minority ethnic (BME) qualifiers receiving a first or 2:1.
  • There is a persistent gap in the degree attainment for students with different ethnicities, although this has decreased for the second consecutive year.

Attainment gaps differ widely depending on the age of the student:

  • 8.6% ethnicity attainment gap for students 21 and under.
  • 26.3% ethnicity attainment gap for students 36 and over.
  • 2.5% disability attainment gap for students 21 and under.
  • 6.9% disability attainment gap for students 36 and over.

A significant drop in the numbers of mature students applying to university has been widely reported. If older students are less likely to receive a good degree, more may decide that going to university isn’t worth their while. It seems clear that more needs to be done to support and retain this group of students.

Disability >

The report emphasises the importance and value of disabled students' allowance (DSA).

  • Disabled students receiving DSA are more likely to achieve a 1st or 2:1 degree than disabled students who don't receive DSA.
  • On completion of their first degree, they are also more likely to be in employment or further study, and more likely to be in a graduate job.

The extra support that the DSA funds has enabled this cohort of students to achieve equal outcomes with non-disabled students.

HEIs are doing a lot of work to inform disabled students about DSA and how it can support them to reach their potential. However, ongoing research by ECU into support for students experiencing mental health difficulties suggests that this group would benefit from further information and support to enable them to make informed choices about whether to apply for DSA.

Ethnicity >

The report adds to the growing body of evidence that students from minority ethnic backgrounds have a different experience of HE from their white peers. This points to the need for more inclusive curriculum design, assessments and culture.

Many HEIs have set objectives to tackle the differences in degree attainment. As a sector we need to commit to taking significant, long-term action to tackle these issues and ensure that no student is disadvantaged by their colour, race, ethnic or national origin, or caste.

Gender >

The different outcomes for male students highlight the need for HEIs to consider their specific student experience and the academic and pastoral support tailored for, and available to, male students.

The report outlines the continued success of female students in HE, but there remains the need to focus on women's career progression and retention in academic employment. While around 56% of all students are women, only around 20% of all professors are women.